The official record shows that Alana Cook was born in Worcester, Mass. But as with many stories told in the world’s game, there’s more to it than that.
Soon after Cook was born, the family moved to Colorado. Then, just before her fourth birthday, they moved to Far Hills, N.J., about 20 miles northwest of New Brunswick.
For high school, Cook went south to the Pennington School in Mercer County, a short drive from Yardley, New Hope and other Philly suburbs along the Delaware River. Her success there propelled her to star-studded Stanford, a pro career with one of Europe’s giants, and increasing status with the U.S. national team.
When you consider all that, you can add Cook to the list of national team players with ties to our region. And if the centerback’s progress continues, it’s a list she might be on for some time.
“[There’s] quite a lot of quality that comes out of New Jersey, and I think it just made for a really awesome experience growing up playing there,” Cook said in a recent interview. “It obviously set me up well to continue my career into college and into the pros.”
Cook was recruited to Stanford in part by a former assistant who now works for the Union, Jay Cooney. She quickly became a star out west: Pac-12 freshman of the year, four straight conference titles, a national championship as a junior, and the captaincy as a junior and senior. The title-winning squad included future national team players Catarina Macario, Tierna Davidson and Andi Sullivan, plus a raft of other pros.
Cook also had the U.S. youth national team program’s attention by then. She captained the under-17s and played for the under-20s and under-23s. She also had England’s attention, thanks to her English father (and perhaps a shallower talent pool). Her older sister played for Great Britain’s softball team at the 2016 World Championships. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that England invited her to a training camp in September 2019.
A month later, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski invited Cook to his first camp in charge. Cook committed to the U.S. and has since won two caps, the most recent coming this past January. She likely won’t make this summer’s Olympic team because it’s just 18 players, but she’ll definitely contend for a 2023 World Cup roster spot.
“We saw something that we believe is a potential for the future,” Andonovski said last month, “and we believe that she deserves a shot to be in the system. To be around those players and spend as much time as possible with the coaches to be integrated in everything that we’re doing.”
While Cook committed to the U.S., she did not commit to the NWSL. Instead, she went to France and signed with Paris Saint-Germain, one of Europe’s powers.
“After my senior season at Stanford, I kind of was interested to see what the options were abroad,” Cook said. “My agent let me know that PSG was interested and it just felt like an opportunity that I couldn’t give up. To be able to play in a different country and kind of get to see Europe in my early 20s, get that experience [of] European football [and the] Champions League, for me it was something that I was really interested in, and it felt like the right time to make that move.”
PSG is a perennial second fiddle to Lyon, the 14-time reigning French champion and four-time reigning European champion that has the world’s most glittering array of stars. But this season, the tables have turned. The Parisians beat Lyon last November to take first place in the league, and they’ve still got it with five rounds of games to go (including a rematch in Lyon).
On top of that, the teams are in the midst of a Champions League quarterfinal matchup. Lyon won the first leg in Paris, then the second leg was delayed because of a big COVID-19 outbreak in Lyon’s ranks. But that has not lessened the intrigue of the title race, with attention on it growing worldwide.
“We’re all very aware of the standings. But any given day, you know, any team in the French league can battle,” Cook said. “At this point, if you drop points anywhere, it might not even matter what the result is when you play Lyon. So it’s almost as if every weekend is a final.”
Now add this cherry on top: The U.S. will visit France on Tuesday (3 p.m., ESPN2) in the teams’ first meeting since their epic World Cup clash two years ago. The game will be played in Le Havre, where the French famously beat the Americans a few months before the tournament. And it will be two days after Cook’s 24th birthday.
France will be without some of its biggest stars because of Lyon’s virus cases, including towering centerback Wendie Renard, stalwart midfielder Amandine Henry and dynamic winger Delphine Cascarino. The U.S. will also be without Macario, who plays at Lyon. She didn’t test positive, but is quarantining as a precautionary measure.
In their places might stand some of Cook’s PSG teammates, who happen to be part of an outstanding class of rising young talent. Left back Perle Morroni, midfielders Grace Geyoro and Sandy Baltimore, and scoring machine striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto are all in their early 20s.
“I have the good fortune to train with them every day and to get to go against them and kind of hone in on my skills defending against [them],” Cook said. “They’re very well set to continue the legacy of French football being a world contender.”
If Cook keeps going on the path she’s on, she could do the same for the United States.